County administrator Bob LaSala has suggested raising the property tax rate that pays for emergency medical services as much as a whopping 46 percent next year to help fill an expected shortfall that could bankrupt the system by 2013.
Raising the tax rate alone won't solve the money problems the countywide EMS system is facing. LaSala said fixing the issues will mean cutbacks and a change in how Pinellas pays the 18 cities and fire districts who provide EMS service.
"We are way out of balance," LaSala told county commissioners during a workshop Thursday.
The EMS system is facing a $16 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 and an additional $3.1 million shortfall during the 2012-13 fiscal year, primarily because of falling property values.
It's the same situation the commission has faced for three years. But, rather than raising the tax rate, commissioners dipped into savings. That can't be done much longer and the system needs an infusion of cash, LaSala said. Without more cash, the system "would crash" in 2013 when savings run out.
County Commissioner Norm Roche said the idea of raising the tax rate by 46 percent is stunning until you look at the actual dollar figure of the increase. What's more disturbing, he said, is the behavior of previous boards that got the county into a "desperate" financial situation. Roche was elected to the commission in November.
"The fiscal reality of this on track to being bankrupt is real," Roche said. "We are dealing with the sins of our fathers. ... It has been kicked down the road far too long."
The commission will make a decision later this summer.
LaSala suggests that the EMS tax rate be raised from $0.5832 per thousand dollars of assessed, taxable property value to $0.8495 per thousand dollars. The owner of a home valued at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption currently pays about $58.32 per year for EMS. If LaSala's recommendation passes, the owner of that home would pay about $26.63 more per year, or about $84.95.
The hit to property owners could have been worse, but LaSala asked the 18 cities and fire districts to hold their costs down in the coming fiscal year. That meant the overall increase in costs for 2011-12 was only about 1.6 percent. The original estimate showed costs going up by 5 percent.
If the rate is increased that much, the county expects to bring in about $42 million, which would be used to pay the $38.5 million the cities and fire districts need plus other costs, including the medical director's office, medical supplies and radio maintenance, assistant county administrator Maureen Freaney said.
LaSala's proposal to increase the tax rate comes just after the county administrator released on May 3 a preliminary report of a $130,000 study of the EMS system.
The main recommendation is to limit funding to 72 paramedic positions countywide. The county currently funds 62 such positions. A paramedic position is 3.6 paramedics (the number needed to keep a seat filled 24/7 and provide for supervision and other expenses). The positions would be funded equally — an average amount for the county.
The cost, LaSala said, would be about $27.1 million annually, a savings of about $11 million over the current system. The savings would come from changes in the type of vehicles being used and by standardizing the rate at which departments would be reimbursed for each position. That would mean some departments would get less per position than they do now. Others would get a bit more than they now receive.
That proposal has been criticized as simplistic and potentially harmful to the level of service. LaSala disagrees.
LaSala says he's open to other good ideas, but he appears determined to go ahead with his plan, giving commissioners on Thursday a time line that includes implementation of the new funding method as of October 2012.
Both the plan and the tax rate increase, LaSala said, are needed to solve the fiscal issues faced by the EMS system. Neither alone is enough.
Roche said he is not a fan of the study nor its main recommendation.
"I'm not sure why there seems to be a push for this ... plan," he said. "I don't think all the options are being put on the table."
Reach Anne Lindberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.